Pediatric Surgeon Describes What It’s Like to Lose a Child on His Watch in Heartbreaking Detail

Humans of New York (HONY) is known for using images and stories to tap into our shared humanity, and a recent viral post is no exception. Yesterday afternoon, HONY posted the photo of a well-known pediatric surgeon at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. In the post, Dr. La Quaglia speaks with brutal honesty of the pain that he, as the doctor, feels when a patient dies.

“The absolute best thing in the world that can happen to me is telling a parent that their child’s tumor is benign,” he says. “I live for those moments. And the worst thing that can happen to me is telling a parent that I’ve lost their kid. It’s only happened to me five times in thirty years. And I’ve wanted to kill myself every single time.”

We often hear of the toll that pediatric cancer takes on a family, but we rarely hear about the toll that it also takes on the doctors treating those patients. Though Dr. La Quaglia takes his responsibility seriously and with humility, his words remind us that doctors are still very much human.

“Those parents trusted me with their child,” he goes on to say. “It’s a sacred trust and the ultimate responsibility is always mine. I lose sleep for days. I second-guess every decision I made. And every time I lose a child, I tell the parents: ‘I’d rather be dead than her.’ And I mean it.”

Not only does Dr. La Quaglia’s post on HONY strike a nerve because it reminds us of the heavy weight doctors – especially those treating children – feel on a daily basis, but it reminds us that there is only so much we, as humans, can control and that the weight of grief and the enormity of death touches us all.

Dr. La Quaglia concludes by saying, “I go to church every single day. And I think that I’m going to see those kids in a better place. And I’m going to tell them that I’m sorry. And hopefully they’ll say, ‘Forget it. Come on in.’”

While Dr. La Quaglia’s post might focus on the heavy responsibility he bears when a patient dies, patients and their families are rushing to extol the good doctor’s virtues. The comments section of HONY, and the entire Internet for that matter, is filling up with stories of Dr. La Quaglia’s grace, compassion, and dedication. As one mother, Kate Sanchez, writes:

“My most vivid memory of him is the night of my daughter’s first surgery. Dr. LaQuaglia got the tumor out but she clotted in a way he had never seen before. She was very, very sick and very close to death. He looked at me as I was trying to maintain my composure and welled up with genuine tears and said he wished it was him and he’d try everything to save her. And he did. He wanted to even stay by her bedside with her but the rest of [the] team wouldn’t let him. His tears will forever be etched into my memory, he truly got our pain. A year and three months out from that day, he still checks in every so often — always [takes] phone calls or [responds] to emails about her care quickly whether it’s me or another doctor calling. He still treats her with the same love he did that first day.”

The post is heartbreaking, as are the comments, but if there is one positive message to take away, it might be this: In a world filled with senseless tragedy, there are people like Dr. La Quaglia out there who understand the fragility of life and are doing their very best to take care of us.

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